Since we have no writings from Yang Zhu, what we know of his philosophy comes by way of his detractors and simple recorders. Of the former, Mencius is the most prominent and I have already mentioned his characterization of him as advocating “everyone for himself” (wei wo). There is another: “Mencius said, ‘Yang Tzu chooses egoism. Even if he could benefit the empire by pulling out one hair, he would not do it.’” (Mencius 7/A/26; Lau)

Lau notes: “This is almost certain to be a distortion of Yang Chu’s doctrine. What he taught was rather that one should not give a hair on one’s body in exchange for the enjoyment of the Empire.” (Note 3, p 187) Scholars seem to universally agree with this assessment. Mencius, as Graham remarks, had “an axe to grind”.

What Yang said and meant was that, in as much as the preservation of one’s life (both physically and psychologically—xing/one’s “nature”) is of utmost importance, one should not compromise it for anything external, not even the possession of the Empire. This would be to be “thinged by things”, “casting aside what is our end in life and becoming a sacrifice for something that is not”. (29; Graham) This represents a principle fully absorbed by Daoism.

Graham explains (Disputers of the Tao, p 53) that many philosophers (“of the knightly class”) of that era were looking for ways to justify non-involvement in government since it often proved to be harmful for one’s physical and psychological well-being. This is Yang’s attempt.

As for his supposed egoism we note that his self-caring also involved care-for-others. If possessing the Empire benefitted him, but harmed others, still he would not take it. The sagacious king who abandons his kingdom and heads for the wilderness rather than fighting to defend it evinces Yangist sentiment: “To send to their deaths the sons and younger brothers of those with whom I dwell is more than I could bear. . . . I have heard that one does not let the means of nourishing do harm to what they nourish.” (28; Graham)

Would that the leaders of the American Empire thought likewise. Instead, they gladly send others off to die for the Empire—which is to say for the corporations that benefit from war and from the extension of global dominance.

But, “What if they gave a war and no one came?” What if, people were unwilling to “die for their country” and instead looked after their own most precious selves? Such “egoism” would indeed benefit the world.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *